Oil Change at Rath's Garage Reviews

SPG Reviews, DECEMBER 21, 2017

When the mysterious Humphreys boys arrive in Delwood, they immediately grab the attention of the prying eyes of the townsfolk—despite Matt Humphreys’ efforts to keep a low profile and not bring attention to their unsettling home life. Matt and Ben are latchkey kids whose alcoholic, womanizing father, Jack, has been dragging them from one depressed town to another. Matt has been forced to grow up fast, raising his little brother, Ben, with unwavering devotion, and protecting him from their abusive father. Then there is the equally wounded Rutger family next door: Allie and her unfaithful husband, Doug, and their three daughters, Lyne, Glory, and Becca. Lyne is gorgeous and popular, but selfish, petty, and spiteful and trapped in a relationship with the über-jock and bully, Rick. Glory is tender and imaginative and lost in books—and deeply in love with Matt. Quickly a bond forms between Becca and Ben, the youngest and most innocent characters in the novel, which brings Matt and Glory closer together. The friendship that forms between these four characters is an idyllic haven away from the pain that envelops both families. But the vicious cycles of infidelity, lies, and vindictiveness that run through the Humphreys and Rutgers—and the buried secrets of the past—threatens to violently tear apart the precious harmony that these four characters have built.

Narine draws on these familiar types, but with purpose. The characters of Rath’s Garage are inexplicably trapped in the roles that life has set out for them, and they struggle to see a way out of a recurring spiral of pain that has trickled down from one generation to another. Matt seems destined to repeat the womanizing ways of his father, seeking release in meaningless hook-ups—until Glory opens him up and shows him a different way. Lyne is trying desperately to hold onto an increasingly unstable Rick, a destructive relationship that too closely mirrors the dynamic of her own troubled parents. The most rampant type that pervades the novel is epitomized in Rick, Jack, and Doug who are all cut from the same mould—the bad boy archetype. In crafting these three characters Narine explores the rigid gender norms of rural Canadian life: in particular, the seething, controlling men that threaten to destroy and fragment the peace and joy that Matt, Ben, Glory, and Becca have built in Delwood—a dominating presence that the characters in the novel are fatally unable to escape.

Rath’s Garage makes repeated reference to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, one of Glory’s favourite novels with the nomadic Joad family a parallel to the Humphreys, but Narine’s thematic concerns more closely echoes that of S.E. Hinton: the coming-of-age novel about broken families; loneliness; love and loyalty amidst crumbling family life; socioeconomic differences and the lure of status; and the pitfalls of stigmatizing and ostracizing others—a fatal flaw that plagues the characters of Oil Change at Rath’s Garage. And like Hinton, Narine deftly gives us glimmers of hope in the path not taken—the path the characters of Rath’s Garage cannot always vividly see—the path that as Glory reminds us, where we are all so much more than where we’ve come from.

— Mazin Saffou, SaskBooks

Pages of Stories, September 10, 2017

Full disclosure: Back in 2010 I published a short story written by Shari based on the two main characters from this book. It’s an excellent story to read. This book however, takes place years before that story occurs and is quite different.

Because of my familiarity with the two characters in this story I went into this book with expectations. I knew it would be well written because Shari is a fantastic scribbler. Perhaps that’s what caused me a bit of trouble the first two chapters. I feared telling Shari that I didn’t enjoy her book but Matt, Ben and the Rutger girls had already hooked me.

The main characters are young adults but the story itself seems to be intended for an adult audience. Brothers Matt and Ben are moved from Alberta town to Alberta town by their alcoholic father Jack. Their upbringing is at best troubled and even though Matt is only 16 he has been the self appointed guardian of 11 year old Ben since his birth. I’ll avoid as many spoilers as I can but I want to say that their mother did not abandon them.

Matt and Ben are the new neighbours to the Rutger girls who have their own stories to tell. While Ben and Becca become fast friends, the rest of the relationships are complicated. This novel is no Valley Ridge High young adult romance. This novel is full on hits you in the face with reality. There are underlying themes which are disturbing and there is a lot of swearing. It was this facet of the novel that initially made me uncomfortable. I don’t swear a great deal in my life; some days more than others but nothing like what is written. I was going to send Shari and email suggesting that someone else review this book because I wasn’t really enjoying it. And then I remembered. I remembered that reading is about obtaining knowledge, growing, being entertained and moving outside your comfort zone to gain a new perspective. I’ve no idea if youth swear as much as is written, but I realized that I ought not to put my own perspective on someone else’s writing because my world isn’t their world.

It didn’t matter in the end because one of the great things about Shari’s writing is that those characters become as familiar to you as your own friends and family. I found myself caring about Matt and Ben, and Lyne and Glory and Becca and all the parents. I wanted happy resolutions to their life. I wanted to see them lift themselves up and out of their situations. But when reading a book, it’s not what you the reader wants; it’s how the story evolves and in this case there are no tidy solutions. Everything is left as open as when it started. But having read the short story that occurs some years later in their lives, I know that a solution is possible.

And the crazy thing is that Shari draws you into their lives. She makes you care so you always want to know what’s happening next. Well done Shari and thank you for making me move out of my comfort zone.

I strongly recommend that both teens and parents of teens read this book. There are adult situations that occur that should be discussed within a family unit. And if not, if ever you are in a situation like Lyne experienced or Matt or Ben – get help. Know that you don’t have to put up with it and remember that these are fictional characters while you are not. Go to police, go to teachers – find someone that can get you the next level of help that you need.

— Darlene Poier, Pages of Stories


In that often-difficult transition from our teens to adulthood, or in strained relationships between teens and parents, what are the chances for growth and change? Is there still room for hope in a fractured family?

Those are two larger questions that gradually surface in Edmonton author Shari Narine’s debut novel, Oil Change At Rath’s Garage. Set in small-town, rural Alberta, it’s a gripping yarn that revolves principally around two dysfunctional families who wind up living across from each other.

If the author trades in some familiar stereotypes of small-town life, she also finds fresh insights into contemporary youth culture and the mating rituals of teens and adults. Some readers might raise an eyebrow at the way certain characters swear frequently, or at their occasional sexual encounters, but in the end Narine’s book is never gratuitous, never less than believable, and rich in life lessons.

“I wanted to explore this whole idea of the ‘hook-up’ culture,” the author explains. “To me that’s very real, something I hear my own boys talk about and something I see around me. It’s the whole question about casual sex, ‘is it just sex’ or ‘where does love fit into all this?’ and whether everything is just physical. So I hope it’s something that speaks to young adults, to make them reflect on where they’re going with their lives.”

The author says she directed her novel towards adults and leaned a bit towards women readers but she hopes it can find an audience with men and young adults. Which makes sense since many of the scenes involve high school age teens, apart from their parents. Their parents are busy enough dealing with infidelity and the hypocrisy of small-town morality.

Oil Change At Rath’s Garage takes off abruptly with a violent confrontation in high school. But the larger event that sets the scene is the appearance of Jack Humphreys and his two sons Matt, 16, and Ben, 11, in the imaginary town of Delwood. Once Jack gets a job as a mechanic at Rath’s garage you gradually learn how they’re stuck in a pattern of moving to a new town every year or so, what happened to the absent Mrs. Humphreys, and why her memory drives Jack to alcoholism, empty sexual encounters and violent abuse.

In the townhouse across the street, mother Allie Rutger and her three daughters Lyne, Glory and Becca will become curious friends and maybe more for their new neighbours, offering a much needed dose of female nurturing along with their own needs and desires. The reader is inevitably hooked on whether love and the need to set down roots will triumph over the Humphreys’ self-destructive ways.

Shari Narine was actually born in Guyana, but was only about eight months old when her parents moved to Alberta. She lived in several small towns right into married life before moving to Camrose for college studies, and eventually Edmonton to complete a bachelor of arts (English major) from the University of Alberta.

Writers like Robert Louis Stevenson inspired her interest in books early on but she recalls getting a serious case of writer’s bug in Grade 9, after being struck by the realization that “you can really move people in how you write.” Over the years she has served as a writer or editor for various newspapers and magazines, including a short stint with the Edmonton Journal, and the author continues to freelance in journalism and fiction today.

Narine has been writing and publishing short fiction since 2008. The concept for Oil Change started coming together about six years ago.

Given her small-town upbringing you have to wonder how much of the book borrows from her real-life experience.

“I would have to say that (fictional) Delwood is a combination of the three towns I grew up in and married and lived in, Daysland, Donnelly and Pincher Creek. I think small towns all have a similarity but they all have individual things as well. I think Delwood itself is a character in this novel.”

Narine has two sons, now young adults, but she underlines they are not real-life studies for the two brothers, Matt and Ben Humphreys in the novel.

“Although my husband and I split up, my two boys grew up with stable parents. I guess I wanted to see what happens to children who don’t have stable backgrounds. The novel is ultimately a kind of love story between the two brothers. Their relationship isn’t healthy and I wanted to explore that. And when it comes to Allie, the (Rutger) girl’s mother, I think she and I are very opposite. She’s stuck and has no real support from her family, which is where a lot of women are.”

Like a good movie, the best part of Oil Change At Rath’s Garage may be the skill Narine brings to showing us important insights about love, sex, parenting, and sibling relations, rather than simply telling us outright. She notes “readers should think for themselves and draw their own conclusions.” Rather than using a fully omniscient viewpoint, she plumbs the inner dialogues of five principal characters to ensure you get to know them.

That title, Oil Change At Rath’s Garage, is a metaphor of sorts. There is a specific oil change for the Humphreys in the middle, but the story contains a larger dilemma about how far these characters can go to find a greater sense of self-worth and family stability, about their capacity to change. Along the way, a subtext addresses John Steinbeck’s famous depression-era novel The Grapes Of Wrath, drawing loose parallels to that book’s Joad family and a promised land.

“In the end, Matt Humphreys’ growth is in the terrible realization that he and his brother can’t depend on their father, but he makes certain sacrifices out of desperation. Sometimes you really have no choice.”

Narine argues that teenage life is as much of a confusing “grey area” as it has ever been, so it’s admirable the way her novel offers young people a valuable perspective without getting preachy.

The author credits mentor Margaret Macpherson from the Writer’s Guild of Alberta and editor Michael Kenyon from Thistledown Press for their help in finessing the novel. And readers should know that she is already at work on a sequel of sorts that will involve some of the same characters.

Shari Narine will read from her novel for a book launch at Audreys Books on Tuesday, May 16, with subsequent readings at Daysland Public Library May 17 and Beaumont Public Library May 24.

— Roger Levesque, Edmonton Journal